Category Archives: Culture

Me and J.P. (Sartre)

J.P. Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize

J.P. Sartre when he refused
the Nobel Prize

In 1946, when we were still living in France, I came upon a publication called “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean Paul Sartre. It captivated me. Sartre wrote of choice, personal responsibility and discipline. He advocated a philosophy of free will, of man being the architect of his own destiny, with no help from religion or other diktats. Sartre rejected other-directed moral imperatives and received values. I liked the idea of man being defined by his actions and their consequences, without a prescribed way of life. To Sartre, life was a succession of free choices. Jean Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a political activist and a novelist. I read No Exit, Nausea, The Flies and others and enjoyed them all.

But Sartre’s views led him to strange engagements. Like many other intellectuals of the day he had become a Communist during World War II. To him communism was an antidote to fascism. Wasn’t Stalin fighting and defeating the Nazis? After the war, Sartre traveled to Russia and wrote a favorable report, unable to see forced collectivization, and the mass executions of political “enemies” that did not fit his preconceived views.

Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were both studying philosophy. De Beauvoir was a novelist and a feminist. She wrote: The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter which I read and found to be a little heavy. She had no sense of humor.

De Beauvoir and Sartre had the same philosophy of life and thus a very strange relationship. They were a couple but led totally independent lives. Sartre loved women and both he and de Beauvoir had many affairs. She even introduced him to other women. They both affected to despise conventions and to reject bourgeois morality. Though she was a feminist, de Beauvoir was totally subjugated by Sartre.

In May 1968 they both joined the student revolt in Paris and marched with placards glorifying Mao Zedong. They had chosen a path that I could not follow and I lost my respect for them. It was incomprehensible to me how such intelligent people could so willfully blind themselves to what was happening around them.

Many of their peers had also fallen prey to this bizarre fascination for Mao and his little red book. How they could overlook the 36 million or more dead in the artificial famine of the “Great Leap Forward” and the tortures, massacres, and imprisonments of anyone not in favor with the ruling powers was incomprehensible to me. Why did they ally themselves with the executioners rather than the victims? I saw a yawning trench between their ideals and the path they had chosen to follow.

French intellectuals in those days also worshiped Stalin and Castro and exhibited a virulent anti-Americanism. It was their way of “epater le bourgeois,” (to shock the middle class). They seemed to enjoy this role. They had followers in the United States including Leonard Bernstein who affected this form of “radical chic” also.

Protected from reprisals because they lived in a democracy, they became “revolutionaries” from the safety of their armchairs. To me, it was blatant hypocrisy. The French author Jean Francois Revel called Sartre an impostor with his Marxist acrobatics. He wrote that Sartre was a philosopher of liberty who hated liberty and wondered why this intelligent thinker chose the intellectual night of Communism.

Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down stating that writers should not affiliate themselves with institutions.



The Other Africa

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi

Mma Ramotswe and Mma
Makutsi

Our constant news cycle gives us a very skewed view of the world. We are at the mercy of the media which have a penchant for the brutal, the sensational and the disastrous. Take the coverage of Africa. We know all about greedy dictators who accumulate obscene fortunes while their people are destitute. We know about rigged elections and corrupt rulers who cling to power long after their terms have expired. There is chaos in Somalia and Eritrea, mayhem in Congo and Sudan. Nigeria has an infestation of terrorists (Boko Haram) and in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has instituted a North Korea-style brutal dictatorship.

But what do we know about countries where people lead ordinary lives, going about their business, not causing trouble or bothering anybody? We never hear about Malawi, Senegal, Gabon, the Gambia, Tanzania or Botswana.

For this reason I would like to give a huge thank you to Alexander McCall Smith who takes us to Gaborone, Botswana in his series about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He shows us another Africa that is not torn by violence and mayhem. Granted he has idealized Botswana a little, but the good thing is that he introduces us to a different culture, one of people who show much kindness and consideration for others and who look at life in their own unique way.

He introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, the founder and owner of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, presented us to her secretary-assistant-partner Mma Makutsi, and to her husband J.L.B Matekoni, proprietor of the Tolkweng Road Speedy Motors garage. Mma Ramotswe’s name is Precious and she is euphemistically described as “traditionally built.” Mma Makutsi whose first name is Grace is the proud recipient of a 97% final grade in Secretarial School. Mma is a polite and formal way of addressing ladies. The equivalent for men is Rra. J.L.B. Matekoni’s first name has never been divulged. We are also told that Mma Makutsi has many virtues which “she is the first to admit to.”

We all have an inner voice which talks to us. Mma Makutsi who has a weakness for colorful shoes, has projected this voice onto her shoes and they talk to her and guide her choices in life.

Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B Matekone live in a comfortable house on Zebra Drive, with a verandah where they drink bush tea, and a shady garden with an acacia tree. They have two adopted children, one of whom is in a wheelchair. In Africa it is very common to raise children who are not your own, sometimes nieces and nephews, sometimes strangers, because of the large number of orphans, and to treat them as your own children. Although Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni obviously love each other, they have a curiously formal way of addressing each other.

People come to Mma Ramotswe ‘s agency with problems that she solves with a combination of common sense, determination, empathy and astuteness. The detection aspect of the story often serves to demonstrate the Botswana way of thinking and to illustrate a way of life which is essentially leisurely, old fashioned and unassuming. There are, of course, also villains, cheaters and baddies or Precious Ramotswe would be unemployed. Gaborone’s inhabitants have a circuitous way of conversing, going off on tangents and meandering before they get to the point (if they ever do.) They have a knack for making a short story long and the author loves to poke gentle fun at them. People’s wealth is measured in heads of cattle.

The country they live in has been democratically ruled since its independence in 1966. It is sparsely populated and has a modest standard of living. Once in a while we are reminded of medical epidemics (AIDS) which leave children orphans. The Limpopo River and Kalahari Desert add a note of exoticism. There are still some wild animals and human hunter-gatherers in the desert.

There are now 15 titles in this series and they are all a pleasure to read. The latest one is “The Woman who Walks in Sunshine.”



TV Recommendations–The Best in British Detectives

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Unmasking the Villain

The creation of a Metropolitan Police in Britain in 1829 gave rise to the fictional detective hero. Edgar Allan Poe created the first one, C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Charles Dickens followed with Mr. Bucket in Bleak House in 1852. With a new public desire to find out how crimes are solved, many stories with detectives as protagonists began to appear. In the beginning they were police officers. The sub-genre of the amateur sleuth evolved later. The tradition lives on and has now migrated to the television screen.
Here are three different series which I watch often. All three have a contemporary setting. In each the detective is a police officer. Even though they all involve violent murders, they could be classified as “cozy” inasmuch as the setting is rural and the people often know each other. These are in contrast to the “noir” or hard-boiled genre which usually takes place in a big impersonal city with its “mean streets” and is heavy on physical violence.

DEATH IN PARADISE

This story is a pastiche, a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the classic thirties murder mystery. The setting is the idyllic fictional tropical island of St. Marie. The police chief hero is not a native and is something of a “fish out of water.” He is a bumbling individual and thrashes around but ends up discovering the culprit. Of the Who-dunit, how, where, when and why,the emphasis is on the “how” because the murder seems impossible. But then our hero has his “Aha” moment often caused by something irrelevant to the story. Every traditional gimmick is employed: false confession, red herrings, rehash of the story with everyone involved gathered in a room while the detective eliminates them one by one until he shines the light on the culprit. He or she is of course the least likely individual. It is a formula, and we like its familiarity.

MIDSOMER MURDERS

The setting for this series is the picturesque county of Midsomer with its wealthy inhabitants, Tudor houses, thatched roofs, and impeccably maintained gardens. It has its fetes, garden tours and other English festivities. Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is a likable fellow, the very essence of Englishness. He is often shown at home with wife and daughter.
Against this idyllic setting, there are sinister crimes, murders of revenge, jealousy, fear of revelations of misdeeds in the past, hatred and betrayal. Unfortunately the plot is so intricate that it is often difficult to follow: many corpses, several overlapping tragedies and sometimes even more than one culprit. The key to unraveling all these happenings is “Why.” Here too the least likely person often turns out to be the villain, (or one of them). Still, it is captivating to watch because the characters are well developed. Also the acting is very good.

INSPECTOR LEWIS

This series is a spin-off of the Inspector Morse mystery series; Inspector Lewis was Inspector Morse’s sidekick. The setting is the beautiful University of Oxford with its population of ambitious and often arrogant professors and dons and its miscellaneous students often overworked and underprepared. Professional rivalries, cheating, betrayals and other shenanigans are on the menu. Again the beautiful architecture and historic traditions are at odds with the sordid machinations of the academics who do not hesitate to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. In contrast to Inspector Morse who was an intellectual and opera lover, Inspector Lewis has a working class background and little familiarity with literary quotations. Instead he relies on his common sense, good intuition and hard work. He is stubborn and determined to get to the bottom of a case. Here too the “Why” is the predominant question and the villains are often snotty and arrogant.
In all three series the focus is on the detective, but he is not the central character and his own problems do not intrude and cause a distraction. The suspect is not obvious and is often respectable, a pillar of the community or an admired academic. The solution is credible and derives from the characters and the plot. There is no “Deus ex Machina” or artificial ending. Solving the mystery and unveiling the villain is the goal and it answers our craving to see the murderer identified and punished and order restored.



Fanfare For The Common Man?

Editor’s note: Simone suggested some music to accompany this post. It is Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” (there are big drums for the first 30 seconds and then will come music many will recognize)

“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” is the title of a book by Richard Hofstadter which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was written shortly after Adlai Stevenson had lost the Presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower partly because Stevenson was said to be the “egghead” who read books but did not know much about real life.

Hofstadter argues that this kind of anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in American culture. He sees it as the fusion of evangelical religion and the business ethos which suggests that practical training should take precedence over book learning. Intellectuals form an elite and Americans are deeply suspicious of elites because they see them as a threat to democratic aspirations. You have to be average to be liked, thus the lowering of culture to the lowest common denominator. Publications like Readers’ Digest and the trivialization of Walt Disney adaptations come to mind. (I am thinking in particular of Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins.)

Our founders did not subscribe to this anti-intellectualism. In fact they were suspicious of the masses. They were the heirs of the Enlightenment and very well educated. They loved books and were keenly interested in scientific discovery. But their values were threatened by the Puritan strain exemplified by John Cotton who wrote in 1642:”The more learned and witty you be the more fit to act for Satan you be”. Andrew Jackson was the first president who styled himself as “a man of the people.” I guess they did not use the term “folks” at that time.

Two other books that treat this same theme are Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” and Isaac Asimov’s “The Cult of Ignorance.” Both report an unfortunate belief shared by many people who don’t have any respect for knowledge and who then say “Democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Thus the dumbing down of America. We call intellectuals eggheads, nerds, geeks and dorks. About half of Americans between 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries. More than one third consider it “not important” to speak a foreign language. Many think that one’s education needs to lead primarily to immediate financial benefits. One can see this anti-intellectualism still alive in the Republican party and in the utterances of the Tea Party. When they don’t like what science has discovered, they deny it. Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting everybody in America to go to college.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia was the educated, professionally active population. It consisted of spiritual leaders, artists, writers and scientists. The tsars repeatedly tried to clip their wings because they challenged their absolute power. The Russians are very proud of this cultural heritage. The worst insult you can hurl at a Russian is to call him/her “nekulturny” (Not cultured).
Russians cherish their rich history of art, literature, music and ballet. They revere the Bolshoi and Marinsky theaters and the vast collections of history and art in the Hermitage Museum. They are also deeply in love with poetry. Their national hero is Aleksander Pushkin who wrote Eugene Onegin, a novel entirely in verse. I suspect that even Vladimir Putin is proud of this heritage as long as it does not threaten his power.

According to Hofstadter, intellectualism consists not so much in accumulating knowledge and feeling superior about it but rather as a habit of mind. It is being sensitive to nuances and seeing things in degrees rather than in absolutes. It is essentially relativist and skeptical but also circumspect and humane. It also means constantly exploring and widening one’s horizon.



A Woman in Two Worlds – Josephine Baker

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“J’ai deux amours…Mon pays et Paris”. “I have two loves…my country and Paris” was Josephine Baker’s signature song.

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman who aspired to be a music hall dancer. Her father was a vaudeville drummer who soon disappeared from their lives. Josephine ran away from home at age 13 and took up dancing “to keep warm” and collected coal from railway tracks for the same reason.

She danced in a couple of musicals to modest success and in 1925 she traveled to France to perform in Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. The following year she appeared at the Follies Bergeres and was an instant hit. She danced in an exotic, fantasy African decor clad only in a skirt of 16 bananas which bounced around her as she swirled her hips. She says “I wasn’t really naked. I simply did not have any clothes on.” She was funny, she was sensual. At no time was she pornographic. They called her Black Venus and Black Pearl.

Josephine then starred in two movies…Zou-Zou and Princess Tam Tam. She quickly moved into French society, mingling with Picasso (who painted her), and the authors Simenon, Cocteau, Colette and Man Ray. She was not only accepted but became a celebrity herself. That is why her return to the United States in 1935 on a tour with the Ziegfeld Follies was such a shock. Suddenly she was plunged into a racist and hostile world. Not admitted to the Stork Club, or the hotel of her choice. Confronted with “colored” lunch counters and bathrooms and “move to the end of the line.” She went from riches to rags instantly, then quickly returned to France and became a French citizen.

During World War II Josephine Baker performed for the Allied troops in North Africa and also was active in the resistance movement. She had by then acquired a vast property in the Perigord which she named Chateau des Milandes and it became a shelter for the resistance. At the end of the war Baker was decorated with the Croix de Guerre. Medaille de la Resistance and eventually the Legion d’Honneur.

In the 1950s she began to adopt babies from around the world (12 altogether), her “rainbow tribe” was an experiment in brotherhood. At the Milandes she raised them in the traditions of their respective countries. Was that where Angeline Jolie got the inspiration for her own “rainbow family?”

During the fifties Josephine frequently returned to the United States to support the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 she participated in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke at the National Mall. She told of freedom in France and of being able to enter a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, of not having to go to segregated public places, and not having to fear the stares and insults of white people. She wished everyone in the audience to be as lucky as she had been without having to actually flee their homeland.
In 1973, after years of rejection and humiliation at the hands of her countrymen, including being accused of being a Communist, Josephine Baker performed at Carnegie Hall and was greeted with a standing ovation. The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day. Josephine Baker died in 1975. At her funeral 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to see the procession and the French Government honored her with a 21-gun salute. She was the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.

 

 

http://https://youtu.be/TG4kG79YpUQhttps://youtu.be/TG4kG79YpUQ



Fallacies

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Pundits are writing: How can Hillary be a credible advocate for the middle class? How can she understand everyday people’s problems when she is so immensely rich and vacations in the Hamptons and mingles with all those multi-billionaires? It’s like saying: This doctor looks so healthy. How can he possibly understand and cure sick people when he is not sick himself?

Another thing I would like people to explain to me is the gay “pride” concept. Sexual orientation, like gender, race and eye coloring is something that one is born with and not a question of choice. It certainly should be accorded equal protection under the law. We do not say we are proud to be tall, or curly haired or left handed. Maybe the “pride” in gay pride is a reaction to and over-correction for centuries of ostracism and persecution.

I also do not comprehend all the uproar about Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane president and CEO of the NAACP who turns out to be white. What is so reprehensible about a person who wants to identify as black and to celebrate black identity? We always say that we need to start a “conversation” about racism. Rachel did not talk about it. She acted. Let’s hear it for Rachel Dolezal.

Contrast this with Dylan Roof in Charleston who sat for an hour in a black church, was welcomed by the congregation and then got up and shot 9 people because he wanted to start a race war. The southern States came together and immediately took action. They removed the confederate flag from public buildings. It took this horrific action to galvanize them.

But how many deaths will it take before we get the same kind of response to the damage caused to our psyche, our families, our society and our reputation in the world by so many individuals running around with guns and shooting people in schools, churches, movie theaters, military installations and everywhere they please.
How many more mass shootings will it take for the American people to wake up to the menace of guns?

(Editor’s note: This post was written before the recent murders in Chattanooga and Lafayette)

Guns in the home are not a protection. Guns in the home are an invitation to violence and death. Children die in accidents. Suicides are made easy and quarrels degenerate into killing. Guns do not protect. Guns kill. Let us get rid of guns like we got rid of the confederate flags.



How Do You Say That In English?

How-do-you-say-in-english

Each language looks at the world through a slightly different lens and develops its own idiosyncratic expressions. To be sure many experiences are common to humans everywhere and many ideas are expressed in similar ways. But certain perceptions escape this shared sameness and generate their own vocabulary. The Germans, for instance, have their own Weltanschauung. But wait, say you. Isn’t that a fancy word for worldview? Certain linguists maintain that it represents a more comprehensive outlook, a more exalted vision than the pedestrian “worldview.”

Two more such ostentatious German words have invaded our language: Zeitgeist is a one-word way of saying: “the intellectual fashion of the day.” Its virtue is brevity. Gestalt refers to “the whole nature of something.” It too is a useful shortcut. There are some more: Leitmotiv is used in music and literature. It is a recurrent theme associated with a character or a situation. Still another German word is considered to be untranslatable: gemutlich, which has a connotation of cozy and pleasantly comfortable. I think that “comfy” conveys the same feeling.

I am not aware of any Russian words that have entered the English language but Vladimir Nabokov who wrote both in Russian and in English cites two that have no equivalents: Toska means “spiritual anguish tinged with nostalgia.” Poshlost refers to a certain vulgarity of taste and moral tackiness. It is a little like the German word “kitsch” which we have adopted. The Germans have also given us “ersatz”. During World War II it was used to describe a poor imitation. When there was no real butter or leather there was ersatz. Nowadays we like to say”faux” (like faux fur) to designate a fake.

The French say the word “depaysement” cannot be adequately translated. Literally it means being out of your country, something like: out of your comfort zone. And while we are talking about French, “enjoy your meal” is just not the same as “Bon Appetit.”

The whole Yiddish language is in a category by itself. It is much easier to steal it wholesale than to develop satisfactory equivalents. Isn’t “Oy vey” more expressive than “Woe is me?” Doesn’t kvetch sound better than complain and isn’t “schlep” a lot more colorful than drag? “Schmooze” conveys something different from just mingling and “chutzpah” will beat nerve or audacity any day.

Saul Bellow says that oppressed people tend to be witty. Being self-deprecating is a defense mechanism. You laugh at yourself to disarm “the enemy.” It is a preemptive strike against them laughing at you.

Finally I have come up against two Hebrew words for which there is truly no translation. The first one is used when a woman is wearing a new outfit which you have never seen before. You are then supposed to say”titkhadshi lakh” which means roughly “renew yourself.” For a man, it’s tikhadesh lekha.
The other word is “davka” which has no equivalent in English. It has a number of uses and meanings and contains elements of contrariness, emphasis, paradox, irony and spite. Example: “She knows I am here every day except Friday. Davka she came on Friday.”

Do you know other untranslatable words or expressions? I would love to hear about them.



Opera and Life

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In my youth, music came from the radio or via records played on a gramophone. Each record was printed with a dog attentively listening to the sounds emanating from a record player’s big horn. The text read, “His Master’s Voice.”

What kind of “tunes” was I listening to? Mostly opera arias by the great singers of the time: Caruso, Nicolai Gedda, Jussi Bjorling, Chaliapin and others. Yes, many of them were males. But I also liked the pop music of the day. Back then there was not such a divide between the two genres. Many singers had a foot in each camp: Mario Lanza,Ezio Pinza, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Deanna Durbin were some of them. It was the golden age of the movies and they all appeared on the screen. Films were the great unifier. One pop singer was called Tino Rossi . He was the Andrea Boccelli of my youth and appealed to the sentimental sensibilities of the 1930s.

Back then I thought opera was just a collection of beautiful solos. We had no opera house and I had never seen a complete opera performance. And then one day I witnessed an amateur rehearsal of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni. Suddenly my whole musical world was totally changed. Although I had never been in love, I completely identified with Santuzza pleading with Turiddu not to abandon her. Her pain became my pain. I understood that opera was much more than bel canto. It was drama, tragedy, poetry, farce, all of it enriched by music. And music often expressed those sentiments better than words alone could. What would seem absurd, even excessive if spoken suddenly seemed absolutely right when sung. In the famous quartet in Rigoletto four people speak at the same time and instead of resulting in cacophony, each voice is heard and understood while they blend at the same time. When listening to Violetta (in La Traviata) sacrificing her own happiness to that of Alfredo, you cannot help crying.

The same scene in Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias” might seem mawkish and over the top because our sensibilities are not the same as those of the 19th century. “La Dame aux Camelias” was inspired by the real life story of Marie Duplessis an ignorant peasant girl in Normandy whose brutal father beat and raped her. When she was fourteen, he sold her to an old man of 70 who took her to Paris. Within a few years she changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and totally remade herself into the most famous courtesan of the day. She lived by her wits and prospered. She died of tuberculosis at age 26. Her story inspired a novel, a play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and Verdi’s La Traviata.

Sometimes an opera plot is so absurd that it is only held together by the music. In Verdi’s Il Trovatore, you will find revenge, abduction, mistaken identities, a baby thrown into flames. It is so ludicrous that no matter how much you would wish to suspend disbelief it is impossible to identify with it. It is only held together by Verdi’s glorious music.

And sometimes the union is perfect: Don Giovanni goes to Hell in style and The Marriage of Figaro ends with everybody living happily ever after to Mozart’s uplifting music.



A Muslim Woman of Valor

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1969. As a 5-year-old she was subjected to genital mutilation. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia and Kenya. Throughout this time she was a fervent Muslim. In 1982, refusing to submit to a forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands escaping from her family. In 1992 she was granted asylum. She learned Dutch, went to University and became a member of Parliament. She then began to speak publicly against the repression of women under Islam.

In 2004 she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh on the film “Submission” based on the book she had written about the suffering of women, including honor killing in the Muslim world. Van Gogh was assassinated by a radical Islamist who left a letter threatening Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest with a butcher’s knife. Aayan then went into hiding (like Salman Rushdie). The Dutch Government, in an effort to placate its Muslim community, refused to grant her protection.

Eventually she moved to the United States. Here, no liberal institution wanted anything to do with her because of her outspoken criticism of Islam as a whole. She is now a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
In her book Heretic, Hirsi Ali says that Islam is ready for a major overhaul and that it needs to find a way for its vast majority (more than a billion people all over the world) to express their condemnation of a murderous minority.

Because of such utterances, she has been accused of Islamophobia. She says: “If Islam is like any other religion, why can’t people criticize it or leave it? Is it controversial to say that women and men should be equal? Most of the suffering attributable to the religion is visited on Muslims themselves. If you say, for instance, that Mormonism has some ridiculous beliefs, no one will try to kill you. Moderate Muslims hate me because I make them feel uncomfortable.”

Other religions have shed the most barbaric aspects of their creed and have been weathered by humanism, reformation, science and secularism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes that Islam, unreformed, when put into practice leads to dystopia.

She has found an admirer in Sam Harris, the author and bio scientist. He says: Ayaan has surveyed every inch of the path leading out of the moral and intellectual wasteland that is traditional Islam. Christopher Cadwell writes in the New York Times: “Voltaire, who spoke out against religion in the 18th century, did not risk his life with every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantly with people who aspired to assassinate him”. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a brave woman and deserves the support of all thinking individuals.



And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

Castle and ramparts, medieval city. Carcassonne, France

Ever since the Bronze Age, people have banded together and erected barriers to protect themselves against invasion by dangerous “others.” This was especially true in Europe during the Middle Ages. Because of constant wars, dense population centers surrounded themselves with elaborate fortifications including walls, gates, observation towers and deep ditches. Some were built around castles. Others extended beyond citadels.

The Great Wall of China was erected for protection against the Mongols and other nomadic tribes. Hadrian’s Wall in northern England was meant to thwart barbarians and keep them from invading this outpost of the Roman Empire. These walls also served to collect customs fees.

Soon however, as cities expanded and flourished, the walls became an obstacle to commerce and contributed to isolation. They began to come down. Fortunately many have survived.

I have always been fascinated by the still existing walled towns and have tried to visit many of them in my travels.

Carcassonne, high on a hilltop in the center of France, is the largest former fortress in Europe. It is a medieval fortified town, restored in the 19th century. Its massive walls, dating from antiquity, encircle a gothic cathedral. There is also a castle complete with drawbridge. The view is superb everywhere you walk.

Saint Malo, a walled port city in Britany, was almost totally destroyed in 1944 by Americans. They believed a great number of Germans were hiding there (they weren’t). It too was completely rebuilt. You can walk on the cobbled streets of the ramparts and see the ocean on all sides. It is often grey and windy which adds to the overall somber effect. It is in Saint Malo that I have seen the highest and fastest tides in the world. Climbing to the top of the walls they seem to be propelled by giant forces.

Dubrovnik in Croatia was founded in the 7th century on a rocky island. Its thick creamy walls, turrets and towers are bathed in radiant sun. The vermillion rooftops, with views to the azure and glistening sea, give it the look of a jewel. You can walk and enjoy it for a long time.

Quebec City is the only walled city on the North American Continent. Its cobbled streets overlook the St. Lawrence seaway. A castle (Chateau Frontenac), cannons, churches and bell towers add to the fortress effect.

The Berlin Wall (1962-1989) was conceived as an anti- fascist bulwark meant to keep Western “fascists” from entering Eastern Germany and undermining its moral purity. Its real purpose, however, was to imprison the East Germans. It was to keep insiders inside.

It finally exploded from within in 1989, releasing all its prisoners. And the walls came tumbling down.